COLUMN: Styrofoam cities and avatars: how the Gehry siblings would redesign education

LOS ANGELES – A group of fifth graders assemble around an enormous cardboard-covered table, designing a city from recycled materials. There’s tremendous excitement in this Venice, California, classroom as they discuss ideas for creating an imaginary metropolis from scratch.

“We need transportation!” one student shouts.

“A train going all through the city,” another offers.

Later, armed with protractors, they stand on street corners and beaches, digging holes and surveying land parcels. They elect a mayor, contemplate traffic problems and look clearly enthralled as they learn by doing, guided by Doreen Gehry Nelson and her brother, the renowned architect Frank Gehry.

A 1972 documentary captured the Gehry siblings as they helped students in a Venice, California, classroom design and build a city using Doreen Gehry Nelson’s Design-Based Learning method. Credit: “Kid City” screenshot

The classroom teacher is less pleased. “Not in keeping with normal procedure,” she says at one point in the recently restored 1972 documentary, “Kid City.” Within weeks, the Gehry siblings are sacked, their dismay on full display as they pack up and leave.

“All we are talking about is trying things and taking chances,” a disappointed Frank Gehry says to the teacher on camera, as his younger sister Doreen, who came up with city-building as part of her design-based learning method, looks on. “As far as I’m concerned, you kill any creativity.”

Undeterred, Doreen Gehry Nelson, now 86, went on to start her own nonprofit, win a slew of awards and share her city-building teaching methods with thousands of classroom teachers and other education professionals around the world, though not nearly as many as she would like.  Frank Gehry, who turned 94 on Tuesday, designed some of the most famous buildings in the world, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall and The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

The design-oriented superstar siblings, raised in Toronto before relocating to Los Angeles and becoming leaders in their fields, will appear on stage together in a keynote discussion at SXSW EDU in Austin that I’ll be moderating on March 7. They’ll be discussing Gehry Nelson’s book “Cultivating Curiosity: Teaching and Learning Reimagined,” a call for breaking away from formulaic teaching.

Watching the dated but still relevant documentary “Kid City” is a great way to understand the Gehrys, as they showcase their shared persistence and willingness to challenge norms – themes that permeate their respective life’s work in architecture and education. Observing eager kids and frustrated adults in the film, I also recognized the enormous tension that still exists in the U.S. over how and what students are taught.

I’ve all too often heard about the latest trend that will fix education: blended, competency-based, deeper, outdoor, social and emotional, skills-based, personalized learning, to name a few labels. Post-pandemic, a new urgency to address lagging test scores, mental health, falling  enrollment, widening achievement gaps and teacher disillusionment is replacing conversation about creativity and risk-taking, something Gehry Nelson laments.  

She is more concerned about keeping students engaged than she is about catching them up post-pandemic. She’s not only convinced there’s a lotwrong with the way students are often taught, she has many ideas about what should change.

“I want teachers to feel comfortable, energized and focused as they learn something new, and to know they can make mistakes,” she told me during my recent visit to her home in Los Angeles.“It’s the job of our educators to make it so compelling and so much fun, they [students] just want to learn things.”

To Gehry Nelson, that means having students design, build and run their own cities, which isn’t always an easy sell; California is the only state with districts that use her method. Students not only build cities, they create governments, infusing civics into the curriculum, too. It’s a way of reimaging classroom practice, weaving creative thinking into the entire K-12 curriculum and connecting many subjects to cities built by students, with the help of educators she wishes were also thought of as artists.

“Mistakes and revisions are part of the creative process and everyday life,” she said. “We need more hands-on learning by doing. In my heart, I value the contribution of architects and great thinkers in the field.”

Architect Frank Gehry, 94, designed some of the world’s most iconic modern structures. Credit: Patrick Aventurier/Getty Images

Both Gehrys embrace conflict as an important part of learning, having devoted their careers to overhauling conventional expectations. Frank Gehry’s desire “to design something that one would want to be a part of, something one would want to visit and enjoy in an attempt to improve one’s quality of life,” is his driving philosophy. And he has walked away from major projects where he didn’t have sufficient collaboration and control.

He’s also a big fan of his sister’s work, one reason why he’s at her side building mock cities in the Kid City film, part of a National Endowment for the Arts project at the time.

“Once you start a pattern of being curious you can go to the moon,” Gehry told me, in a brief conversation about his sister’s city-building methods. “It’s simple to understand. You can go anywhere. You are enabling curiosity.”

Frank, it turns out, is  “a wonderful teacher,” Gehry Nelson told me, while I tried out his iconic sculptural wiggle stool of corrugated cardboard and admired the earrings he designed and recently gave her as a birthday present.  “He doesn’t tell kids what to do; he lets them experience what is going on.”

Related: Teacher Voice: With hands-on activities, my chemistry students are building cities of the future

In her own 15 years as classroom teacher, that’s what Gehry Nelson attempted, though she ran into many obstacles and says she often felt stifled. She’s keenly aware that many teachers are struggling these days, leaving the profession in droves, and still draws inspiration from the legendary educator John Dewey, who believed in the joy of learning via captivating, hands-on projects, rather than sitting in rows memorizing and reciting facts.

It’s why she founded the nonprofit Center for City Building Education and developed her own reform movement, a nod to “the great architects and thinkers in the field.”  She also established and led a master’s program for 25 years at California State Polytechnic University Pomona, a program that ended over disagreements with the administration.

Gehry Nelson then became the founding director, in 2019, of the Designed-Based Learner at Center X at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, after Frank endowed a $2 million chair in her name.

“Once you start a pattern of being curious you can go to the moon. You can go anywhere. You are enabling curiosity.”

Frank Gehry, on his sister Doreen Gehry Nelson’s teaching philosophy

To get a better idea of what DBL is all about, I spoke with Georgia Singleton, a veteran fifth-grade teacher in the San Gabriel Unified School District who teaches in a high-poverty school, in a class with 31 students from all over the world, most of them new English language learners.

“I love teaching it, because the kids guide it,” Singleton told me, via Zoom from her colorful, perfectly organized classroom, where I could see photos of the so-called creatures, or avatars, that her students created for their city-building project on a shelf over their portraits. “They love their creatures, they love their city, and they have ownership. It’s fun, and a lot of school isn’t.”

One recent assignment involved rebuilding a small 3-D city from cardboard and other materials to keep their avatar creatures safe after an earthquake, using Gehry Nelson’s trademark backward thinking, which asks teachers to start with creativity and high-level thinking, followed by discussions of the information they’re trying convey.

Related: Proof Points: Four new studies bolster the case for project-based learning

In the same district, science teacher David Cameron uses design-based learning in the chemistry and computer science classes he teaches at Gabrielino High School, while a middle school in Walnut, California, is successfully using DBL to teach science standards.

Gehry Nelson wishes more schools and districts would do the same, saying, “There are no fancy materials required, no textbooks for students.”

Expansion is more complicated than it sounds. School districts must pay for DBL training with grant money or designated professional development (training) funds, and while introductory trainings are offered, the proponents suggest longer term partnerships that require a commitment of one to two years, followed by regular coaching and in-depth support. It’s one of many projects and offerings at UCLA’s Center X.

“He’s a wonderful teacher. He doesn’t tell kids what to do, he lets them experience what is going on.”

Doreen Gehry Nelson, on her brother Frank Gehry

“We have so many things coming at teachers these days,” Jessica Heim, who directs the DBL center at Center X, told me. “We don’t always fit in as a curriculum, because it’s really a methodology to transform the classroom environment.”

Design-based learning is not project-based learning, as Heim and Gehry Nelson are often asked to explain. “It requires a shift in thinking about teaching and learning and a lot of collaboration and reflection,” Heim told me.

It also means trying new ways of teaching and taking risks as a way of creating change, something Frank Gehry has devoted his life to. He once noted that architecture, and any art, “can transform a person, even save someone.”

That is not far from the way Gehry Nelson views the role of design-based learning.  “It is about saving somebody,” she said, adding that she and her brother have much in common in that sense. “We are like a dog with a bone, we know what we want to do.”

Teachers, she believes, must do the same, even if it means confronting recalcitrant administrators. “What do I tell teachers whose administrators and parents won’t let you do it?” she said. “I tell them to close the door and do it anyway.’

This story about design-based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

You may also like...